The Pentacon 6 Lens Hit List
This page is devoted to my favorite lenses for the Pentacon Six mount. It is a companion to my P6 camera comparison page. These are my subjective opinions based upon my own experiences. For a complete list of just about every lens every produced for the system, see pentaconsix.com. For a great test and comparison of many of these lenses, see The Mother of All Lens Tests. (Note that if either of these sources ever go offline, I will archive them here.) My intention here is to give a far more succinct account of the lenses that most people would be interested in using.
First, some general info about who made these lenses:
Carl Zeiss Jena:
Before WWII this company was known simply as Zeiss. After the war, when Germany was divided up between the victors, Zeiss (based in Jena) ended up on the Soviet Zone. Some of the Zeiss employees decided to defect to Western Germany, where they set up a new company called Zeiss. Many others continued operations in Jena, in what was to become East Germany. Later, trademark ligitation in Great Britain and the U.S. forced the original East Germany company to change its name to Carl Zeiss Jena. The West German Zeiss continued to use many of the original company’s designs (most of which were created by Carl Zeiss himself around the turn of the century) for new clients, including Hasselblad, Contax, etc. They continued to grow into the well-respected giant they are today. Meanwhile, the original company continued to produce lenses for many formats. Their newest line was a collaboration with Pentacon, for the 6×6 Praktisix (later renamed Pentacon Six) system. Great care went into the design and manufacture of this line of lenses, and they are deserving of the high reputation they enjoy today (through they still suffer from the “Jena” appellation, which makes them sound inferior to the company making the Hasselblad lenses).
The first lens produced for the P6 system was the Tessar 80mm f/2.8. It was only made for the first version of the Praktisix, then replaced within a year or two. Nonetheless, it is reported to be a decent lens. It is chrome in finish.
The complete original line consisted of:
Flektogon 50mm f/4.0
Flektogon 65mm f/2.8
Biometar 80mm f/2.8
Biometar 120mm f/2.8
Sonnar 180mm f/2.8
Sonnar 300mm f/4.0
In 1969 the Flektogon 65mm was dropped from the line. It was reported to be the only mediocre lens among a line of top-flight glass. It wasn’t missed. (Note: I have not tested this lens personally.) These lenses went through several finishes. In order, they were: 1. Chrome. 2. Black with a leather band on the focus ring. 3. The cheap “Star Wars” version which replaced the leather band with a crappy plastic band. 3. The famous “zebra” design of silver and black stripes, all metal. 4. All black metal. In general, the zebras and earlier are single coated. The all black versions started in the mid ’70s and are mostly multicoated. However, I’ve noticed absolutely no difference in practice between the single coated versions and the multicoated ones. However, in their forty-year production run, these lenses were optically updated in some cases. Mostly this happened in the ’50s and ’60s. However, the late ’70s or early ’80s saw updates to the 180 and 300. The purpose here was to reduce the weight and increase the usability of these large lenses. These late versions look different from their earlier counterparts, and are marked by the addition of a sliding “auto-manual” switch where previously the lenses had only the standard momentary-action DOF preview lever. Personally, I prefer these last versions. For most other lenses, however, the earlier ones are just as good as the later ones. All production ended in 1991 when Pentacon was liquidated (with one exception, covered in the Exakta 66 section).
Pentacon manufactured a couple of in-house lenses for this system, first under the “Prakticar” brand and then under “Pentacon.” These are high quality lenses, but not up the outstanding optical standards of Carl Zeiss Jena. The two primary lenses, which are both available on the used market, are the 300mm f/4 and the 500mm f/5.6. The 300mm competes directly with the CZJ 300mm, and while it isn’t quite as good, it can sometimes be had a bit cheaper. The 500mm, however, is special, as the only other lens this long to be released for the P6 system was a very rare, insanely expensive, and ridiculously large CZJ mirror lens. While this test demonstrates that the mirror lens is sharper, 500mm Prakticar/Pentacon is definitely the more practical choice. So this lens, while not included on my Favorites below, represents a unique and important contribution from Pentacon itself.
The famous brand/factory in Ukraine got into the P6 action sometime in the early 1980s. They had already produced a full line of 6×6 lenses for the Kiev 88 camera (a Hasselblad clone). The popularity of the Pentacon 6 system in the Soviet countries lead to increasing interest in a merger between the Russian and East German camera and lens systems. Arsenal, under its Arsat brand, began making P6 mount versions of their Kiev 88 lenses. Then a couple of Ukrainian companies devised a way to modify the Kiev 88 to take P6 lenses. Finally, Arsenal caved in completely and altered the Kiev 88 to take P6 lenses right from the factory. All lens production switched over to the P6 mount. Production on these lenses outlasted either of the German players. Arsenal only shut its doors in 2008.
The Arsenal lenses are a mixed bag. Some are dogs, some are really excellent. In general, as with almost all Soviet optics, the fit, finish, and mechanics of the lenses are far inferior to the East German lenses. However, the Soviet optic industry was well regarded, and optics are another matter. Different lenses were introduced over time. The best appear in my favorites below. Additionally, some lenses include a DOF preview lever and some don’t. Many of the lenses use a standard 62mm filter thread.
The legendary lens company became part of an agglomerate that included Rollei and Exakta in the early 1980s, and was directed to produce a line of 6×6 lenses for the new Exakta 66 camera system that would be the best medium format lenses in the world. It was an expensive endeavor, but the result was an unparalleled line of 6×6 lenses. The line consisted of five primes and two zooms. All were astronomically expensive to produce and purchase. Most were sold in West Germany to consumers who could afford a luxury 6×6 camera system. However, the camera was never all that popular, and thus huge quantities of these lenses were never produced. They did have a long run, however: from 1985 to 2000. In 1991, Exakta bought up some of the P6 assets of Carl Zeiss Jena, and had the new, Schneider owned facilities produce just one set of lens elements: the Biometar 80mm. Schneider then housed them within their own Exakta 66 mechanics, producing a strange hybrid of the two lines. This was done in order to produce a much less expensive normal lens, to make the basic Exakta 66 kit more affordable. It worked, and now most Schneider P6 80mm lenses are versions of the Biometar, either labeled as such, or as the Exakta E, or simply the Exakta. These are all excellent lenses, but they are not in the same league as the Schneider 80mm MF.
These lenses use a body design completely unique among all lenses, ever. It is apparently inspired by high-tech military optics (binoculars) made for German forces in the 1980s. Like the Exakta 66, the lenses are largely coated in rubber. Their other markings include a distinctive blue ring and matching aperture and distance markings. Love it or hate it, you won’t see any other lenses in this style. Each lens also includes a fantastic DOF preview lever on the bottom front. These are much easier to slide with the tip of a finger than the finger-slicing tabs on Zeiss Jena lenses! When new, these lenses included optional lens shades that snap in place using a special bayonet system. It works great, but those hoods are completely unavailable now. For that reason, I designed a new hood system that allows me to adapt Hasselblad hoods to the Schneider bayonet mount. If you are interested, you can purchase these from me via Ebay. The hoods, either originals or these replacements, are a great feature that allow the use of smaller square hoods rather than generic circular ones, and free up the filter threads for quick changes of filters without disturbing or removing the hood. Additionally, the hood can be easily mounted or removed in under a second. The Russian and East German lenses lack this capability.
I’m going to divide these into three tiers:
1: World Class
These lenses are so good that they rank among the best lenses every produced for any medium format system,ever. I’m only includes ones that are actually available for purchase for a reasonable price. The entire P6 system is worth it for these three lenses, in my opinion.
Carl Zeiss Jena 180mm f/2.8
This legendary lens is based upon a design produced originally for the 1936 Olympics (nicknamed the “Olympiad”), updated and scaled up to 6×6 medium format coverage. There are very few lenses with this kind of speed, focal length, and coverage. The lens easily covers 6×9, and produces very sharp images, even when wide open. And at wide open, that’s some gorgeous bokeh! A spectacular lens in every way. Its only disadvantage is its size and weight. There are many times when it has to stay at home.
Schneider Xenotar 80mm f/2.8 MF
This was Schneider’s entry as the best 6×6 lens in the world. It measures up. It blows away the Zeiss 80mm Planar f/2.8 made for the Hasselblad system, and that is considered the best of the best. It is sharp wide open, has mechanics to dream of (like all of the Exakta 66 lenses), and has a special character to its rendering that makes it more pleasing than any other medium format 80mm lens I’ve ever seen. It is a legend, and users definitely covet their rare copies. It is rare because it was very expensive to produce, and though it remained in the lineup until 2000, most users purchased the much cheaper Zeiss Jena Biometar in Exakta 66 clothing instead. To this day, sellers and buyers often confuse these two different lesnes, particularly as the Biometar was for some time labeled a “Xenotar E,” which sounds pretty similar. But those two letters, “MF,” make a world of difference between an excellent lens and a stellar, one-of-a-kind one.
Schneider Curtagon 60mm f/3.5
This was Schneider’s widest lens for the format (though they perennially planned a 40mm Curtagon that never arrived). Though only a moderate wide (equivalent to something like a 35mm lens for the 35mm format), it is spectacular. It manages to generate a huge image circle and still maintain excellent edge sharpness across all apertures. It is, without a doubt, the single best wide angle lens for the P6 system, and perhaps among all 6×6 lenses. Compared to the Flektagon 50mm, it is also amazingly small, and uses 67mm lens filters instead of 86mm, despite being a half stop faster! I cannot recommend this lens enough. I’ve own two copies and found them both to be equally superb.
2. Really Excellent Lenses
Arsat C 250mm f/5.6
This was a late addition to the Arsat line, introduced in the 1990s, and it it’s a great lens. At 250mm, it is quite compact and light. These later generation Arsat lenses also have better finish and mechanics than the earlier ones (though it is still crude by German or Japanese standards). Razor sharp, you can’t go wrong. The only downsides (the price to pay for such length at such a small size) are a relatively slow max aperture (f/5.6) and not a lot of coverage. It won’t cover more than 6×6, and some users even claim to see some vignetting at 6×6. I haven’t noticed this, however.
Arsat 30mm f/3.5 Fisheye
This is the 6×6 Arsat lens with the highest reputation, and its is well deserved. It compares with the similar Zeiss lens made for Hasselblad, which cost $4k! This lens can be had for under $300. Many would place this in the World Class category, but I include it here because it is really a specialty lens. You won’t get as much use out of it as those optics. But if you need a fisheye or the widest possible lens (and a wickedly sharp one at that, so long as you are okay with fisheye distortion), this is where it’s at. It is, however, an incredibly large and heavy lens, so be warned! Filters, which are inserted at the rear element, are rare to nonexistant. Also, the lens lacks a DOF preview lever. This is not a big deal, as the lens produces almost infinite depth of field anyway.
Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar 120mm f/2.8
This lens performs as excellently as its 80mm counterpart, but gives a bit of extra length that is really useful for portraiture, etc. It is, nonetheless, much smaller and lighter than any 150 or 180 options, and thus represents a good compromise lens for many purposes.
Carl Zeiss Jena Flektagon 50mm f/4.0
This lens is relatively slow, and has only average corner performance, but is very sharp in the center and produces great images. It is the standard wide angle for many folks. It’s a great bargain, but in my opinion, the Schneider Curtagon 60mm is superior in every way (though much more expensive, and as wide)! Another disadvantage of this lens is the enormous lens filters it requires (86mm), and correspondingly huge lens hood. It is also quite a heavy lens. For value and optical quality, however, it works beautifully.
Schneider Tele-Xenar 150mm f/4.0
While slower and shorter than the Zeiss Jena Sonnar 180, this lens produces gorgeous images and is much more practical regarding size, filter threads (67mm vs. 86mm), and weight. I prefer it in many cases. However, if you can take the size and weight, the 180 is ultimately a superior lens (and cheaper too!).
Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 300mm f/4.0
I absolutely love this lens. It is long and fast, and produces images comparable to the 180mm. Unfortunately, it is even larger and heavier. Really, it’s impractical, and even difficult to shoot handheld. For this reason, this lens has never attained the popularity of its shorter 180mm cousin. The lenses are actually the same diameter and mechanically almost identical; the 300mm is just longer and heavier.
3. Very Good Lenses
Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar 80mm f/2.8
This standard lens is really outstanding. A bit soft wide open, but sharp and excellent thereafter. It is also small and compact (much more so than the Schneider normals). Ultimately, however, nothing particularly characterizes it as special, beyond just being an excellent normal lens.
Arsat Volna-3 80mm f/2.8
This lens is equal to the Biometar optically. Perhaps a bit sharper, but with less pleasing bokeh. Later versions, marked with yellow paint, are pretty slick. Mechanically, this lens is able to focus closer than the others, but at the risk of generating a light leak… All in all, I like this lens a lot, but like the Biometar, nothing makes it stand out in any special way. On the Kiev 88CM, its DOF preview lever can be used, where the Biometar’s can’t (it is covered by the camera mount).
The Arsat 120mm f/2.8 and 150mm f/2.8 may be candidates for this category, according to reports online, but I’ve never used them. Other Arsats not mentioned here are generally to be avoided. The Pentacon 500mm lens is unique and excellent, but requires a monster tripod to operate; it’s like a bazooka. I consider it to be a very niche lens as a result.
One final note: The P6 mount is very simple, rugged, and versatile. As a result, it is not difficult to adapt P6 lenses to other camera systems. They won’t go on a Hasselblad, due to flange distance issue, but they can be adapted to any 645 or smaller format camera. I have used them extensively on Mamiya 645 cameras, as they are superior optically to most of Mamiya’s lenses (and in the case of the Schneiders, they are mechanically superior as well). Most of these lenses also have very substantial image circle, and can be used on 6×7 and even 6×9 cameras that can handle the flange distance (i.e., cameras without mirrors, such a baby speed graphics).
To read my comparison of P6 cameras, go here.